Life Lessons from Video Games Versus Mode: Mortal Kombat

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Mortal Kombat…  I admit I never played Mortal Kombat in the arcades when the cabinet first came out (though I remember it took some of the crowd away from my SFII cabinet at the skating rink…) What got my attention with this game were two things: word of mouth and the ad campaign.

I was already used to Street Fighter’s cartoon graphics and its somewhat Looney Tunes violence (even literally seeing stars when dizzy) but I heard a new game was out that upped the maturity level.  It showed real violence and blood and, rumor had it, you could even kill people in this game!  To a 10-12 year old this sounded amazing.  I couldn’t believe any of this could be true!  Then the ads came out for the home version.  The epic commercial featuring 90s techno music and the single shout of “MORTAL KOMBAAAT!” got everyone’s attention.  Followed immediately by the firestorm from parents’ groups and politicians saying the game was too violent for kids and should be banned.  All this did was make kids like me who didn’t pay attention realize “hey I gotta see this bloody game!”

Again I got it for the Sega Genesis, and in this case I was LUCKY.  While the SNES version bent to the will of parents’ groups and removed the bloody aspects, the Sega version just made you put in a code.  This was before the internet folks so, like all the codes I learned, I went to the local FoodMax, opened up GamePro magazine, found the code (down, up, left, left A, right down) and repeated it over and over as I  walked home.  Voila.  Bloody Mortal Kombat.

Mortal Kombat was like nothing I’d ever played before.  I half expected it to play like Street Fighter, it was what I was used to.  I was shocked when pressing back didn’t block, and finding that block button was tricky!  But once I got into it Mortal Kombat, and the superior Mortal Kombat II, sucked me in.  The digitized characters looked more “grown-up” than the cartoons of Street Fighter.  The flinging blood, the wild special moves, and the fatalities…oh the fatalities.  Finding these out was a gold mine of gaming information.  I couldn’t memorize them, I had to write them all down and then play the game over and over until I could execute each one.  Ripping out spinal cords (I was a huge fan of Predator so this was awesome to me), pulling out hearts, uppercutting off heads, skulls spitting fire…this was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Again I felt lucky to have my 6 button controller and the Sega version on MK I.  I learned Mortal Kombat, not playing alone, but with my buddy Mike, who was far better at it than I was (I still trump you in Street Fighter though, Mike…)  We played it relentlessly and learned all the kills, environmental kills, and secret characters and levels.  They still stick with me, after all these years, and its etched into my adolescent gaming memory.

So what gave Mortal Kombat its legacy?

1.)    Maturity: Until Mortal Kombat the most “badass” game in the arcade was…Pit Fighter…shudder…  Street Fighter was full of cartoon characters and cartoon violence, all the beat em ups had a similar look and feel.  Mortal Kombat, with digitized actors playing the characters had a more “cinematic” ambience.  By now I was into Tae Kwon Do and I could recognize the realism in the basic combat moves and appreciated it as a step toward “growing up” in gaming.  The blood and violence just filled out what I expected as a maturing gamer to see more and more of.  Boy was that right…

2.)    Unique Control: After the success of Street Fighter many games copied its controls and animated style to varying degrees of success.  Mortal Kombat was the first game of its kind to use high-punch, low-punch, high-kick, low-kick uppercuts, etc that I ever played.  These moves were all designed to set up special moves that would do the real damage.  And the special moves themselves were terrific and memorable, “GET OVER HERE!” Raiden’s nonsensical babbling during his torpedo move, and Sub-Zero’s Freeze attack.  It didn’t FEEL like other fighting games at the time, but I’ve found, especially as 3D takes over the fighting game genre…the control scheme has become more popular.

3.)    Fascinating Characters: As far as standard attacks, all Mortal Kombat characters essentially play the same.  What makes them cool is their look and their special moves.  Kano was one of my favorites, he just looked wicked with that cyborg eye.  I usually played as Scorpion though. That vicious spear and 90s Ninja outfit made him a stand out option.  Even non-playable Goro still sticks with me as one of the most memorable bosses in video game history.

4.)    Marketing: Mortal Kombat hit at just the right time.  Gamers were maturing, violence in gaming was a hot topic, and the market was expanding.  All the noise people made in fear of Mortal Kombat just made it more interesting.  It stays true to the cliche, no such thing as bad publicity!

5.)    Secrecy:  This concept goes hand-in-hand with Mortal Kombat.  I didn’t believe fatalities were real until I saw one myself.  I just assumed it was talk.  I remember when a guy in my 7th grade class, Charles, mentioned Reptile the first time.  I didn’t believe the character existed…then he did.  For every secret proved to be true, two more theoretical ones appeared.  For every one debunked five more appeared.  If just ONE of all those proved to be grounded in some reality, it made us plug the cartridges back in again and buy the next sequel!

So there is my recollection of Mortal Kombat and why I loved it.  As I mentioned Mortal Kombat II was even better.  I never even tried to play the arcade of that one and just bought it when it came out (or got it for birthday or Christmas…yes kids…games have been 50-60 dollars for a LONG time…)  Playing as new characters, adding new fatalities, kinds of fatalities, and stage hazards made the game fresh and fascinating.  It, like Street Fighter has gone 3D, added new gameplay styles and mechanics, and even jumped genres (Shaolin Monks was an awesome game…), and while it didn’t retain the very basics of the original, they have generally felt true to the original, with secrets, wild characters, and crazy kills.

Next post will be my final comparison and why I prefer one over the other (I’m sure everyone can see where this is going!)

And for  bonus:

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